Ria O'Brien was elected as a councillor in La Viñuela for a second term in the local elections in May. She was first approached in 2015 by the village's PSOE-A mayor, José Juan Jiménez López, as he recognised a need to have a native English-speaking person on the council to be able to help with integration and the foreign community in general. The mayor explains that the foreign population of La Viñuela is around 40 per cent of the village's total , the majority of whom are retired Brits.
Ria, 69, is no stranger to politics, having been the first woman elected to Dungarvan Urban Council in her native Republic of Ireland . She was the 'Chairman' from 1975 to 1976; "There was no such thing as Chairwoman or Chairperson then," laughs Ria, who was just 26 at the time. She also sat on the National Executive Committee of the Fianna Fáil party for seven years. Ria went on to be nominated by then Taoiseach (Prime Minister) , Jack Lynch, and stood for general election for both the lower and upper houses (Senate) of the Irish parliament. She was narrowly beaten and decided not to stand again in the following election . "I would have had a good chance of winning but by then I had a young family and had to make a choice between family and politics," Ria recalls.
She adds that it was tough for women who wanted to get into politics in Ireland in the 1970s and jokes that Lynch didn't have "many women to choose from" at the time, despite wanting to encourage more women to get involved. Ria was also Vice-Chair of a cross-party group of elected women politicians, which provided help and support for the few female politicians that existed at the time. Ria says of her experience, "I learned more then than at school or college and it really whetted my appetite for politics."
Move to Spain
After standing down as a councillor, Ria opened a clothing boutique and ran three shops across Ireland, but admits she always "dreamed of moving to Spain." She and her family used to come on holiday and eventually bought an apartment in Marbella, where they frequently holidayed. It was in the early 2000s that she discovered and "fell in love with" the Axarquía, and in 2005 bought her house in Los Romanes, which is a small hamlet belonging to La Viñuela. "I never moved to Spain, I just stopped going home," Ria jokes when asked when she decided to move here permanently. "I really can't remember when the line was drawn. The idea was just to do trips but those trips eventually started to become more permanent," she adds.
Ria has been involved in village life from the beginning and that is what led to Jiménez López inviting her to be on his party's list in 2015 to be "the link" between the town hall and the foreign community. The mayor says that Ria is "popular" among foreign and Spanish residents alike and he recognised that Ria could "bring a lot to the council with her previous political experience and she is practical."
Despite the socialist PSOE party being ideologically unaligned to Fianna Fáil, Ria says that she and Jiménez López "share a lot of ideas" but admits that she does the job as she enjoys being the link "between expats and the town hall" rather than really getting involved in the politics.
The mayor says that since Ria became councillor, more foreigners have joined the village's town hall census (Padrón). She is also working hard to make sure that the foreign community integrates more and the town hall organises activities and excursions in which both Spanish and foreign residents participate. "The language barrier will always be a problem," admits Ria, who points out that around 70 foreign residents regularly attend the village's free Spanish classes. "But if people meet during the activities, at least when they see each other in the street they can greet each other."
All of the information that comes from the town hall is now in Spanish and in English, and Ria provides a link for people who need a problem to be solved. "Around 60 per cent of the foreigners live in the 'campo' around the village so of course many have been caught up in the illegal housing problem," Jiménez López admits and adds that Ria's help as well as organisations like SOHA (Save Our Homes Axarquía) have been a vital lifeline for people who have found themselves affected by the scandal.
Ria's next project is to set up a U3A group in the village and she says she's had "quite a lot of interest," so far. When I met her she was busy helping a British lady who makes dolls houses with her forthcoming exhibition at the Pantano restaurant at the Viñuela reservoir, and she has many more plans for the future.
The mayor also touches on the problem of depopulation of rural areas of Spain and says that foreigners moving to villages like La Viñuela is positive. "Foreigners bring money to the village and help the economy. In fact we have gone from nine councillors in 2015 to 11 in 2019 and that is largely due to the foreign people moving here," he explains.
Being involved in local politics has also lead to an appearance on the popular El Intermedio programme on Spain's La Sexta TV channel. In the lead-up to May's elections, Ria and former mayor of nearby Alcaucín, Mario Blancke, were contacted by the programme and invited to appear to talk to presenter, Fernando González, known as 'Gonzo', about foreign people standing in local elections. "It was quite an experience. Very surreal," confesses Ria. "A researcher called me and asked me to be on the programme, but hung up when I said my Spanish wasn't good enough. An hour later she called me back to say I could do it in English."
Ria does speak some Spanish and it is enough for her to be a respected member of the town hall team, highly esteemed by the mayor and as he said, popular among all residents in the village.